Reduce the Use of “Of”

By Mark Nichol

How long can you go on writing without using of? You’ll quickly find that it’s an invaluable word, but writers often take it for granted, and its repeated use is a sure sign of prolixity.

Of is a preposition, a word positioned before its object: In “a stroke of luck,” for example, of is the preposition of luck. We rely on such constructions often — and, in moderation, they’re perfectly acceptable — but we can easily overuse them. Fortunately, they’re (usually) easily revised: For example, with a few strokes of the pen (or a few taps on the keyboard), “a stroke of luck” becomes “a lucky stroke.”

The formula is easy — just convert the second noun in a “(noun) of (noun)” phrase to an adjective and move the first noun after the adjective. But such a strategy isn’t always elegant: “A pen’s stroke” might appeal to a computer seeking the most concise, efficient phrasing, but it is jarring to a human mind, which prefers “a stroke of the pen.”

One’s goal, however, should not be to reduce, not eliminate, use of of: After you’ve written a document, search for of, and if you find that you have used it more than once in a sentence or several times in a paragraph, consider revising one or more phrases in which it appears.

For example, a sentence with an in-line list, such as “Information theory has been crucial in the invention of the compact disc, the technology of mobile phones, and the development of the Internet” can be revised to “Information theory has been crucial in the invention of the compact disc, the technology behind mobile phones, and the Internet’s development.”

Note, however, that of is sometimes mistakenly omitted: “He took a couple days off” is acceptable in casual writing, but “He took a couple of days off” is correct, and regardless should always be followed by of, as in “I’m supporting her regardless of whether she’s right or wrong” (though “regardless of” is redundant to whether and might better be eliminated from the sentence).

This post lists some wordy prepositional phrases that can be easily replaced by single words or shorter phrases, and this one suggests strategies for achieving more concise writing by avoiding prepositional phrases altogether.

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11 Responses to “Reduce the Use of “Of””

  • Ian

    Thank you for introducing me to ‘prolixity’. But since I understand the word to mean ‘of tedious length’, it seems unfair that such a short word as ‘of’ should be accused of it.

    One gremlin in your fourth paragraph: ‘One’s goal, however, should not be to reduce, not eliminate, use of of’. I think you meant, “should be to reduce, not eliminate”.
    Thanks, Ian

  • Cathy Speight

    Let’s not forget the constant, incredibly annoying and very incorrect usage of ‘off of’ ….

  • Mark Nichol

    Ian:

    Thanks for your note, and for pointing out the extraneous word.

    I am not accusing of of proxility. My reference is to the frequent presence of of in verbose phrases.

  • venqax

    “Oz’s Wizard”, “La Manchan Man”, Arthur’s Morte, Gilgamesh’s Epic, Arckean Joan– you’re right! You hardly notice of it not being there.
    “Re Mice and Men”, “Green Gables’s Anne”…

  • maevemaddox

    Venax,
    I’m especially taken with Arckean Joan as she happens to be one of my specialties. http://www.amazon.com/Joan-All-Seasons-History-Movies/dp/0984786112/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1382101457&sr=8-2&keywords=a+joan+for+all+seasons

  • Dale A. Wood

    Cathy Speight on October 17, 2013 2:41 pm
    Let’s not forget the constant, incredibly annoying and very incorrect usage of ‘off of’ ….

    Cathy, speak for yourself and your archaic language.

    The phrase “off of” is perfectly reasonable and acceptable in American and Canadian English.
    You should also note that we have your outnumbered many times over.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Correction: “you outnumbered many times over”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Note that in German the genitive case or the case are often used in place of prepositional phrases using “von” (the equivalent of “of”),
    We eliminated the dative case in English over 400 years ago, so we use preposional phrases with “of” instead.
    Also, in English inanimate objects do not have a genitive case.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Correction: I meant “the genitive case or the dative case”
    D.A.W.

  • Phil Radler

    D.A.W.: The Chicago Manual of Style and I would beg to differ regarding the genitive case and inanimate objects. CMOS specifically gives three examples across different functions that are on point: “the company’s representative” (an expression of “agency”); “a summer’s day” (an example of the “description” function); and “one hour’s delay” (“an idiomatic shorthand form of an of-phrase”). Those who would confine it to a strictly “posessive” role seem to unnecessarily surrender the far broader ((and highly useful) functions of the genitive case.

  • venqax

    A Two Cities’ Tale, La Manchan Man, Wine and Roses’s Days, Re Mice and Men, The Opera’s Phantom, Arckean Joan…
    You’re right! You hardly notice of it being gone at all! 🙂

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